Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Farewell to a Difficult Season

Today is the last day of March - and hopefully the last day of what has been a prolonged, difficult winter season. I don't think I am the only one to feel this way: Many bicycle blogs have slowed down this month - with fewer posts and fewer comments, and lots of people have mentioned feeling dispirited.

Funny that March should be the month to almost do us in, rather than January or February. But the key word is almost. My unexpected relationship with Jacqueline gave me just enough of a spiritual boost to deal with the alarming situation that greeted me upon my return to New England: days of non-stop downpours and flooding! Well, I won't let it get me down. April is just a day away and so is the warmth and colour of spring.

In the meantime, I send my regards to all the excellent blogs that have bravely hung on through the entire winter, continuing to give us wonderful posts to brighten the dreary days: EcoVelo, Let's Go Ride a Bike, Riding Pretty, Cycling is Good for You, Portlandize, Suburban Bike Mama, and Biking in Heels, just to name a few.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Day in the Life of Jacqueline

When I initially borrowed Jacqueline, I was not sure whether I would actually use the bicycle for transportation, or just ride a bit in my spare time. But after half a day, I decided not to renew my weekly public transport card for the duration of my stay in Vienna. It is very easy to get around the city by bicycle - not just through the central touristy parts, but through Vienna proper. To demonstrate, Jacqueline will show you one of her daily routines.

At 7:00 am, we are off to the office via the Danube Canal Path - which functions like a cross-town bicycle highway through Vienna. It just so happens that both my flat and my office are close to the canal, so our route to work is pretty straightforward. Pictured above is the nearest entrance onto the path.

The Danube Canal is an offshoot of the Danube River. Both the canal and the river proper have bicycle paths running alongside, but the advantage of he canal path is that it cuts through the center.

One thing I like about it, is how green the water looks - especially in the morning. No idea whether this is due to reflection from trees or chemical pollution, but it looks nice and so I choose to believe the former.

There are some cobblestone stretches along the path, and the 28" Schwalbe Delta Cruisers on Jacqueline are just fine with them. But I have seen other cyclists get off their bikes and walk here.

Some parts of the canal path are woodsy and surreal-looking.

Jacqueline enjoys this sort of scenery the most.

Other stretches are more urban and take you closer to the main road.

That's okay too, but cycling here during rush hour will give you a nice helping of auto exhaust fumes. Have others noticed this problem in large cities? I have been told that automobile emissions in Europe (not counting former Eastern-bloc countries) are supposed to be less toxic than in the US, but my lungs seem to disagree. If anybody has more info about this, please share.

Heading toward the Southern edge of town, the scenery on the Danube Canal Path grows distinctly less picturesque. We are now cycling alongside the highway. And yes, that is a highway sign for Budapest and Bratislava. Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) is only a 45 minute drive away from this point. But instead of going there, Jacqueline heads to the office.

The landscape around my place of work is somewhat post-apocalyptic, but over time I have grown fond of it. Lots of interesting research facilities there, and I work with nice people. The total time it takes Jacqueline to cycle to the office from our flat is 20 minutes - the exact time it takes to commute using public transport.

I rarely stay at the office all day, but typically have meetings all over the city. On this day I had an afternoon meeting in a Cafe at the end of the Prater - the largest park in Vienna.

Lusthaus Cafe. Before you misunderstand what I do for a living - it's not what is sounds like in English. The name means "funhouse". This was about a 10 minute ride from the office for Jacqueline. After the meeting, we briefly returned to work, leaving in the late afternoon to run some errands.

First stop: the bank, in the city center, a 25 minute ride away. To get here, Jacqueline rode back via the Danube Canal path, and then along the Ring Road - which is another "bicycle highway" that loops around the city center.

Jacqueline then proceeded to the photo store in an adjacent district - a 15 minute ride away - to buy some film. She rode there mostly on the road, via a combination of bicycle lanes, "sharrow"-marked side streets, and unmarked side streets. The thing about "sharrows" in Vienna, is that they are mostly painted on 1-way streets against the flow of traffic. Yes, against. The speed limit on these streets is usually 30 km/h. This design goes against everything I have come to believe over the past year as a cyclist in Boston. What do you think of it? And could anybody comment whether Copenhagen and Amsterdam are the same in this respect?

After the photo store, Jacqueline was locked up on a main shopping street and waited a bit while I met a friend for coffee. Then we went to the grocery store Billa.

Jacqueline was proud that she could fit 1/2 week's worth of groceries and my laptop bag into a single pannier. (She is lazy and did not want to open the second one.)

As dusk approached, we cycled home - once again via a combination of roads, then the Ring Path via the route described here. All in all, I would estimate that Jacqueline did a couple of hours of back and forth cycling, and this was typical of how much I travel through the city on an average day in Vienna. Normally all of these trips would have been done using public transport. The travel time by bike is about the same.

I rode Jacqueline for transportation for the last week of my stay in Vienna. It was wonderful and made up for my bad luck earlier this month. I now feel like an idiot that I didn't just buy a bicycle when I lived here for longer stretches in previous years. Cycling in the countryside on my days off was nice, but I have to say that commuting by bike in Vienna is even nicer. And regardless of what the local shops might tell you, a 3-speed is sufficient to tackle "hilly Vienna". I am by no means in the best shape and had no trouble. Of course, the vintage magic of Jacqueline might play a role in that as well. But in any case - if you are in Vienna, get a bicycle and enjoy the city, whether you are a leisurely visitor or work at a fast-paced job!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Velodrome!

I have just returned to the US, but my last week in Austria was so eventful, that there will be a few days of post-processing. My final day in Vienna was especially action-packed. In addition to a full work schedule, many last-minute errands and a farewell dinner, I had a mini-cycling adventure with Jacqueline's owner, Wolfgang.

As the title of this post suggests, we went to the Velodrome! In case this is a new concept to some, a velodrome is an arena for fast-paced track cycling - i.e. cycling on a (fixed gear) trackbike, either for practice or to race. I know that some of you may be wondering what place this possibly has in my world of vintage loop-frame bicyces that weigh 50lbs. Well, I have always admitted my trackbike fantasies, however hopeless and laughable they may be. And trackbikes need not mean carbon fiber monstrosities! - The original pathracers were beautiful.

Wolfgang is living proof that love of the track and love of vintage bikes need not be at odds with one another: He collects 100-year-old bicycles, rides around town on a Dutch bike, and goes to the velodrome. In fact, he transports his trackbike to the velodrome on this unbelievable cargo bike, which he also uses for one of his projects, Heavy Pedals. The trackbike is a 1988 Chesini (Italian), of which Wolfgang has two(!) in his collection.

Before I describe our trip to the velodrome, I will backtrack and say that Wolfgang did me an enormous favour that day. I had been looking for a Large Format camera for some time, and finally found a good deal - on my last day in Vienna. I then realised that not only did I have less than an hour to make arrangements to pick up the camera before the store closed, but I had no plan of how I would actually get the camera home. To explain, a large format camera is so large, that it requires you to load an individual sheet of film into it for every shot. Okay, in the digital age that might mean nothing to my readers, so I will just say that it's huge, would not fit on Jacqueline, and could not be easily carried on public transport during rush hour.

Wolfgang to the rescue with his cargo bike! As you can see, the box with the camera is quite large... but the cargo bike's enormous platform swallows it right up. I am pretty sure there is enough room there to transport a modestly sized mobile home! Of course a few passer-bys stopped to watch as we loaded the camera onto the bike, and the camera shop owner took photos.


We rode across town to drop the camera off at my flat (thanks so much again, Wolfgang!), and then on to the velodrome. Wolfgang cycles "vehicularly" and aggressively, so following him was quite a change from the kind of cycling I've been doing in Vienna. On the way to the velodrome, we raced a bit on the main alley through the Prater park, which was great fun. Jacqueline can go pretty fast, and so can Wolfgang's cargo bike. I arrived to the velodrome exhausted, though for Wolfgang this was apparently just a mild warm-up.

So... the Vienna Velodrome! Behold the awesome beauty of the Ferry Dusika Hallenstadion, Wien - the only velodrome in Austria. This is a view from the top rows of the spectators' seats. The green area in the middle is for track-and-field training, and has a rest area for cyclists on the middle-left (if you click to enlarge the picture, you can see the chairs and the bike racks). In front you can see the two staircase entrances from which the athletes and coaches emerge. The red inner track is for runners. And the outer wooden track is for cyclists.

This is difficult to capture in photos, but the cycling track is sloped sideways at a 45 degree angle. This is probably common knowledge to cyclists, but I had no idea, so seeing it was quite a shock. It was explained to me that the slope allows cyclists go at a faster speed.

Another novelty was this Derny motorized bicycle for motor-paced track cycling events. So exciting to see all of these things.

Wolfgang prepares for the track. I am extremely envious, but delighted to be in the green area taking pictures. I even brought a film camera with 1600 ISO film.

Here you can kind of see how steep the slope of the track is - see that cyclist in the background?

Wolfgang adding air to his tires.

And he is off!

There he goes around the track.

Oh how I wish I could do this too! But first things first: I can't even ride a fixed gear... or a diamond frame for that matter!

The track was not very crowded, because it was a warm evening. There a local team practicing, and a few stray individuals.

I took a couple of shots of the team members (with permission) after they got off the track, and was surprised to see how young some of them were.

And how female! This beautiful girl didn't even seem especially tired. Maybe there is hope for me after all? Though I would need to seriously get in shape first!

For now it was good just to see the Velodrome and to understand what track cycling involves. Would they permit an early 1900's pathracer on the track, I wonder?

Monday, March 22, 2010

England Made Me: Pashley, Raleigh and Dawes in London

I was in London for only two days and it rained continuously. Somehow rain in England does not seem as dreary as in other countries; it has an almost cheerful feel to it and makes colours seem brighter. This is especially noticeable with green grass and red double-decker buses. I saw far too many nice bicycles in the area where I was staying, so I decided to focus on bikes made by English manufacturers.

A tangle of black bicycles locked up to a rack on the King's Road; double-decker bus in the background. The frontmost bicycle is a Raleigh mixte that looked to be from the early '80s.

This is the first time I have been back to the UK in almost 5 years, not counting the many hours spent in Heathrow airport during layovers to other destinations. When I lived in England, it was in a small provincial town. London was "the big city" where I would occasionally stay with friends, go to parties, and visit museums. I am at my best in small towns, and many parts of London make me uncomfortable because they somehow seem simultaneously vast and overcrowded. But there are a few areas that have cozy pockets of quiet side streets that appeal to me. My friend's place in Chelsea is in just such a location, and it was nice to stay there.

Walking around the neighborhood, I came across somebody else's Pashley Princess waiting for her owner outside a health food store.

This Princess has seen some use. The basket is tattered around the edges and the frame is a bit grimy - which suits the bike nicely.

Just blocks away, I spotted a Pashley Roadster. The owner added a wire basket to the front.

The Roadster was locked to the rack with an enormous golden chain, and a U-Lock. The owner must like it as much as the Co-Habitant likes his.

Not one, but three Dawes bicycles were locked up outside the Saatchi Gallery.

The most interesting of them was this Dawes folding bike, I assume from the '70s. I have never seen one of these before and wonder how it rides compared to the Raleigh Twenty. The owner's installation of enormous baskets, front and rear, suggests that they use the bike as a "shopper".

And finally, behold this magnificent Pashley Mailstar, across the street from Harvey Nichols.

The Mailstar is a mail delivery bicycle (read more about it here), but this one has obviously been converted to a family cycle. I wonder whether these are available for purchase by the general public, or whether the owner bought a de-comissioned mail delivery bike? Either way, it is pretty cool and, I bet, extremely steady to ride.

To my eye, not much has changed in London since I was last here - aside from the obvious things, like the new St. Pancras station. Perhaps people seem a bit more relaxed and "loungy" than what I remembered. And I had forgotten how exciting "the High Street" can be.

As for cycling infrastructure - I did not see any. Aggressive, chaotic driving dominates the roads. To me it all looked quite scary and entirely uninviting. All the beautiful bikes I photographed were in neighborhoods that are fairly manageable microcosms - but even those neighborhoods had more cyclists on roadbikes wearing neon than "regular people cycling".

I can not compare this to how things were in London five years ago, since I did not pay attention to bicycles then. But it would be interesting to hear from Londoners. Is there a trend on the rise, like in New York? Or have the Pashleys, Raleighs and the many loop-frame Dutch bikes I saw been there all along?

Whatever the case may be, thank you England for continuing to make beautiful handbuilt bicycles and I hope to see even more of them on the streets of London in the future.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bicycles in Brussels

I was in Brussels and London over the past few days. Am exhausted, but here are a few velo snaps from the land of waffles, chocolate, the European Commission, and Eddy Merckx. London pictures will follow in the next post.

I have been to Brussels many times, and not once have I seen the city sunny. So my main association with it - whether deserved or not - is darkness: dark sky, dark buildings, dark trees, dark chocolate...

People in black overcoats riding black bicycles fit right into the romantically gothic landscape.

A black Gazelle chained up in the city center. I saw many Dutch bicycles, from brands both known and unknown, as well as many modern hybrid bikes. To my dismay, I did not see a single bike by the Belgian manufacturer Achielle.

The bicycle infrastructure looks similar to how things are in Boston: occasional bike lanes and "sharrows". Mostly, bicycles share the road with cars, buses and trams. On large streets you mostly see roadbikes, because the bicycles really need to be going quite fast in order to blend into the flow of traffic. On side streets you see more of the Dutch bikes, since the traffic flow is less hectic.

One trend I noticed is the huge number of people riding folding bikes. There are definitely more folding bikes in Brussels than in other cities I have been to recently, and it's funny to see how aggressively they are maneuvered through the streets. I also saw at least a half dozen women whose outfits matched their folding bicycles, but alas I was quick enough to photograph only this red on red number. Notice also how the yellow panel on the backpack matches the yellow strip on the bike.

And then of course there is Villo, the Brussels bike share programme.

The Villo bikes look to be in spectacularly good condition compared to the Vienna Citybikes and the Paris Velib bikes I have seen. Not sure whether this is because vandalism is less prevalent in Brussels, or because the bicycles are newer.

Adverts are featured on the dressguards - but to my eye, these are not as overwhelming as the ones on the Vienna Citybikes. I also quite like the Iris emblem.

I had a very precise schedule while in Brussels, and cycling was not on the agenda. As for using the Villo for transportation - one of the main obstacles for me was the same as for Vienna Citybike: The basket will not fit my bag - which is a standard briefcase/laptop size bag - and it is not the sort of bag that can be carried messenger style. When I mentioned this in a post about Vienna's Citybike, I received some aggressive responses (that I subsequently deleted together with my defensive replies): Basically, a couple of readers criticised me for "whining" about this issue, and for carrying an "impractical designer bag" in the first place. Not that I need to justify myself, but my bag is actually a conservative, modest briefcase-style bag with no visible designer labels. This type of briefcase-style bag is standard to use in my line of work, whereas a messenger bag or backpack is not. Especially in cities like Brussels and Vienna - where so many professionals arrive for international meetings and conferences, such bags are prevalent. Therefore I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest that when designing a bike-share bicycle, its basket is made to fit a standard laptop-sized bag, for those who do not carry backpacks to work. If a system is designed "for the people", it seems useful to understand what factors encourage said people to use it vs what factors prevent them from using it.

I did not have a chance to visit my favourite places in Brussels on this trip, but at least I walked around a bit between my meetings. Brussels is a city that I like very much, but cannot imagine living in: Everything seems to be centered around EU activities and this gives it a certain hectic and bureaucratic feel even when things are quiet. I also find it disorienting that French and Dutch are used interchangeably (though the city is technically French-speaking), with occasional English and German thrown in as well. For these very reasons, I think it is essential to visit Brussels if you have never been. Its atmosphere is in many ways crucial for understanding today's Europe. It is a very easy city to visit and to get around - with excellent food, regal parks, beautiful architecture, and walkable streets.